Week 8 – Cruel Pies

Dragga, Sam, and Dan Voss. “Cruel Pies: The Inhumanity of Technical Illustrations.” Technical Communication 48, no. 3 (2000): 265-74.


In “Cruel Pies” by Dragga and Voss, the crux of the article focuses around “the ethics of visual display” (265).  The majority of definitions related to the ethics of visual communication revolve around “distortion,” “deception,” “the lie factor”, and “lying graphics,” (265).  However, discussing the ethics of visual communication in these terms “is useful and important, but insufficient” because it neglects “studying and developing a variety of techniques that will bring humanity to technical illustrations” (266).  This “humanity” aspect rings true to Carolyn Miller’s humanistic approach to technical communication.  While Miller focused on “the verbal component of communication to carry the entire weight of the humanistic orientation,” Dragga and Voss seek to apply the humanistic approach to visuals as well (266).

The main focus of “Cruel Pies” centers on the insensitivity to human fatalities as depicted in visual displays.  Dragga and Voss focus on pie graphs depicting human fatalities in the fishing industry, column graphs of human fatalities from bedding fires, and column graphs of baby walker-related injuries (268-269).  They argue that “nowhere are the statistics given the humanity of flesh and blood . . . [and] offer only a pitiless depiction of human misery” (269).  To solve this ethical dilemma, Dragga and Voss advocate incorporating photographs, iconography, or cartoons into visuals to serve as reminders of the human subject matter without resorting to morbid displays of overly-sensitive content.

At the end of the article, Dragga and Voss acknowledge that some people feel that incorporating such images into a graphic display “would be unnecessary, unscientific, and distracting,” to which the authors reply:  “Yes, it would.  And that’s the whole point.”  (272).  They feel that technical communicators hold the responsibility of presenting information accurately and clearly while continuing to uphold the ethics of visual communication.

I had a difficult time with this article because I constantly felt like I was standing on both sides on this issue.  On one hand, I completely agree that people tend to read statistics, particularly regarding human fatalities, with a certain degree of apathy because the information is simply presented as numbers and figures on a page.  However, I think the reason for this is not as simple as Dragga and Voss make it appear.  Usually, people only have a sympathetic, emotional reaction to statistics if there is an element that makes it intensely personal.  For example, if I were reading statistics and viewing a graph on the percentage of school shootings in the United States, I would perceive the statistics in a matter-of-fact way regardless of there were an image of a gun placed next to the graph.  However, if I were reading statistics specifically relevant to Columbine High School, I would have an emotional reaction regardless if the information were presented in standard bar graphs versus bar graphs accompanied with a picture.  This is only because I have a cousin who was a student at Columbine and was in the cafeteria the day of the shooting; my reaction to the numbers would have more to do with my personal connection to the incident than to how the information itself was displayed on paper.

Though I think the idea of incorporating a humanistic aspect into visuals is important, I feel that it runs the risk of coming across as trite or (even worse) insensitive for different reasons.  How can we incorporate elements of humanity back into graphs without creating additional problems?


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